ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – What was once a sleepy retirement community has become a vibrant resort destination, thanks to the Verizon IndyCar Series, as it celebrates the 10th Anniversary of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It’s the season-opening event for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season – a series that hasn’t had an event since Aug. 30, 2014. So as one of the longest off-seasons in professional sports finally comes to a close when the green flag drops for Sunday’s St. Pete Grand Prix at 3:30 p.m. ET, it will be the first race of IndyCar’s “Era of Aero.”
Gone are the spec Dallara chassis where all the cars look alike. Instead, the starting field will have exotic looking “Aero Kits” that will differentiate the Honda teams from the Chevrolet teams in both style and – hopefully – added performance.
The reason for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg’s lasting success is obvious for many reasons.
“It’s location, location, location,” said Team Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya, the 1999 CART champion, 2000 Indy 500 winner and former F1 and NASCAR driver. “You look at Long Beach and it’s on the water and you look here (St. Petersburg) and it’s on the water.
“It’s a place that is attractive to people to come. It’s a cool place and it’s exciting.”
IndyCar found a home when it became the start attraction for the St. Pete Grand Prix back in 2005. It was the first road and street course race in the history of what was then the Indy Racing League, and the late Dan Wheldon drove to victory after Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe tangled late in the race. Wheldon liked the area so much, he moved here. His widow, Susie, and two sons, Sebastian and Oliver, still live in St. Pete.
Ten years later, the IndyCar Series race has become the highlight of the year for this area, creating the “World’s Fastest Spring Break.”
“People like IndyCar here,” Montoya said. “It’s a good place for IndyCar. I really like it.
“It’s a cool race track having part of the airport (Albert Whitted Airport) and part of the city streets is really cool. That is a real challenge. The roads are crowned so you bounce from one side of the road to the other. It’s really exciting.
“IndyCar is a really good position right now. The Aero Kits will be a huge plus to this season.”
The much-discussed Aero Kits have changed the looks of the Dallara chassis – some have described the kits to looking like LEGO building blocks. But the additional downforce will allow the IndyCar drivers to run faster and deeper into the corners and that should change the dynamic of what is already an exciting brand of racing.
Scott Dixon is a three-time IndyCar Series champion and the 2008 Indy 500 winner, but has never won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Despite that, he loves this race – an event that joins the Indianapolis 500, Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Saturday night race at Texas Motor Speedway as the most popular races on the IndyCar schedule.
“It’s a great place to start the season, it’s around Spring Break and the promoters have done a fantastic job with this race with great support from the city and the mayor,” Dixon said. “But the real reason for the success is the community. They embraced the race; they love it and it is very good for the city of St. Petersburg.
“St. Pete has always been a staple of the IndyCar Series and we hope it stays on the schedule for another 10 years.”
That should be a given, because the contract that was drawn up for this event by former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and the city council has the event on an ongoing five-year schedule.
“It’s been five years since I’ve left office and we’ve had two mayors,” Baker explained. “Both of the mayors were on city council when I was in office and passed the race. Both were part of the team that brought the race to town. We have elected people that support the race. We put the race on a five-year revolving contract. At the end of the race, by May or June, the council renews the race again for a fifth year so we add that fifth year after every race so you always have an ongoing five-year contract and that gets you through political terms and makes it a natural thing for the city.
“The first few years after the race for the next week, people would ask if the race is going to come back. They don’t ask that question any more. It’s like asking if summer is going to come next year; it’s an automatic thing to the city that the race will be here.”
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin’s Verizon IndyCar Series Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. ET.